Captured by North Korea during the Vietnam War, the USS Pueblo was a spy ship that could have brought nuclear war!
On May 9, 2019, following the test of North Korean built ballistic missiles, the United States seized the 17,000-ton freighter Wise Honest, raising tensions between the two countries. She had previously been caught smuggling coal into the North in violation of longstanding sanctions on the Communist regime. The seizure was a clear signal to Pyongyang that its recalcitrance and double-dealing would not be tolerated, even by the otherwise friendly Trump administration.
To some observers, the incident might seem like a provocation by the United States, but the Wise Honest is far from the only ship seized in the area. Instead, it is latest in a long series of tit-for-tat challenges, some of which have brought the two nations to the brink of nuclear war. The most important of these seizures was the USS Pueblo in 1968. This incident was so severe that it almost reignited the Korean War, making it a major intelligence disaster of the US and a propaganda coup for North Korea.
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From Cargo Vessel to Spy Ship
Built during the last great maritime surge of World War II, the USS Pueblo was laid down in 1944. She was a small cargo vessel designed to carry troops and supplies from the US to Europe, but lost her mission when the war ended in 1945. She then spent most of the early years of the Cold War mothballed and inactive. But increasing tensions in Vietnam and elsewhere led the US Navy and the intelligence community to decide that they needed a new class of vessels to conduct surveillance and electronic warfare operations.
These ships were to be small, cheap, and heavily laden with communications gear to intercept, decode, and retransmit Chinese and Soviet radio signals. Its only protection was in being disguised as a normal cargo ship. By 1967, the Pueblo was given an extensive suite of communications gear while her crew was sworn to secrecy.
In retrospect, the Pueblo might have been unready for the task ahead. Her first mission was to sail directly off the North Korean coast, just outside territorial waters, and collect Korean and Soviet signals. She reached the Korean Peninsula on January 16 and operated off its coast for the next week. However, the Pueblo's movements did not go unnoticed by enemies.
A North Korean patrol boat passed close to the spy ship on January 20. Then two more fishing vessels made close passes days later. But they ended up sailing off instead of challenging the identity of the American ship, which seemed to affirm that the ruse was working.
What the crew of the Pueblo didn't know was that North Korean commandos launched a series of terrorist attacks across South Korea on January 22, including an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister. These dramatic events culminated in an assault on the Blue House, the Prime Minister’s residence and Seoul's equivalent to Washington's White House. The attack created a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but word never reached the crew of the Pueblo.
The USS Pueblo Incident
Another North Korean patrol ship approached the Pueblo on the morning of January 23, but unlike previous encounters, this ship directly approached the spy vessel and demanded its identity and intent. When the Pueblo responded that she was an American, the Korean ship immediately demanded its surrender. The crew declined and immediately began to leave the area.
But the Pueblo was not a warship. Armed only with a pair of .50cal machine guns with ammunition hidden below decks, she was no match for the Korean ship’s speed or firepower. So, its crew was forced to surrender when the Korean vessel fired a warning shot and threatened to sink the ship. The Pueblo crew would later be court-martialed for this action.
American air and naval forces were in the area and on heightened alert due to the Blue House attacks, but poor communication and coordination – made worse by the clandestine nature of the Pueblo's mission – meant no help would come. The ship’s crew tried to destroy as much of their communications gear, code books, and intercepts as was possible, but only a small percentage could be scuttled before the ship was turned over. Once in territorial waters, North Korean officers boarded the USS Pueblo, removed her crew, and began disassembling the equipment on board.
The crew of the Pueblo was imprisoned and repeatedly interrogated for months. Once their value as an intelligence asset dried up, the crew was then tortured until they confessed to committing crimes against the People's Republic. The Communists conducted physical, mental, and emotional torture on the sailors, including mock executions and threatening to kill the other crewmen if the Pueblo's commanding officers didn’t cooperate. The Koreans eventually got their confessions, although in an act of defiance, the captain inserted a pun that insulted North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung when read allowed by a native English speaker.
The Threat of Nuclear War
American spies quickly obtained photographic evidence of the USS Pueblo's capture and internment. Her capture made a bad situation in Korea much worse, and the Johnson administration considered potential responses to both the capture of the crew and the sensitive equipment aboard.
Many of the proposals, including those from the National Security Council and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, suggested launching strikes against targets in North Korea and the Pueblo herself. Some within the administration even proposed publically threatening the use of nuclear weapons if the crew and the ship weren’t released immediately. However, with the status of the crew uncertain, cooler heads prevailed and negotiations commenced between the two countries. Johnson, who was facing reelection in 1968 and was already bogged down in another Asian quagmire, was surely loath to start yet another war in the region.
The crew of the Pueblo returned home a year after being captured, but Johnson would not be there to greet them as president. Meanwhile, the ship itself remains in North Korea to this day. She is now the second oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy, second only to the Constitution, and is the only US Naval vessel to have been captured since the Tripoli affair during the War of 1812.
But the story doesn’t end there. The immediate crisis was resolved with the return of the crew in 1969, but the damage resulting from the Pueblo's capture lasted for decades. In an entirely unrelated incident, Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker approached Soviet intelligence officers with sensitive Navy information. His biggest prize was the Navy's classified radio codebooks. The only problem was that these books were useless without machines to decrypt them.
With the capture of the Pueblo and her equipment, American radio traffic across the Pacific was suddenly unlocked. This communications breach was so complete that the Soviet Navy had the ability to track American submarines through their communication with secret satellites. Thanks to Walker's continued assistance, this radio traffic remained compromised until his arrest in 1985.
The USS Pueblo is no longer a security risk to the US Navy. But she still represents a major point of contention between the US and North Korea, and her continued internment has been a significant stumbling block between the two countries. In 2018, surviving crewmembers of the USS Pueblo asked President Trump to bring their ship home.